Updated NFL Power Rankings Entering Draft Month

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 1, 2018

Updated NFL Power Rankings Entering Draft Month

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Some of the free agents your favorite team signed in March will become busts, as will some of the players ultimately drafted in April. But because nobody can predict who will boom and who will bust, the glass often feels half-full this time of year.

    The problem is offseason improvements don't mean much if all 32 NFL teams feel they're getting better. Every team has made changes this offseason, but not all changes will prove positive.

    How does the NFL field look after a wild March? Let's take a moment to rank all 32 teams.

    The aforementioned fan dynamics this time of year indicate most of you won't be happy with what you're about to read, in which case you're welcome to believe this is an April Fools' joke.

    (It isn't.)

32. Cleveland Browns

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns are undoubtedly getting better. They can't really get worse than the last two years, and it's hard not to improve when they've got that much money and draft capital. 

    New quarterback Tyrod Taylor gives them a better chance to win than any of the quarterbacks who were on the 2017 roster; March additions Jarvis Landry, Chris Hubbard, E.J. Gaines, Terrance Mitchell, T.J. Carrie, Chris Smith and Damarious Randall give them some much-needed talent and experience; and they'll have the opportunity to add a handful of starting-caliber players with five picks in the first two rounds of the draft. 

    Still, this is a team that won zero games last year and lost stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas to retirement. Unless all or most of those picks start and excel right away and their three 2017 first-round picks break out, the Browns will remain at least a year away from being considered a real pro football team.  

31. Miami Dolphins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    A healthy Ryan Tannehill isn't enough to fix what ailed the Miami Dolphins in 2017, and they appear to be aware of that. Why else would they part ways with their best offensive player (wide receiver Jarvis Landry) and their best defensive player (Ndamukong Suh) in the same month? 

    The Dolphins are much worse with Tannehill and without Landry and Suh than without Tannehill and with Landry and Suh, but they're not about to contend either way, so it's hard to blame them for deciding to save some money in order to focus on the future. 

    There's been talk, per DraftAnalyst.com's Tony Pauline, that the Dolphins could draft a quarterback in the first round, which would likely only hurt their projected win total for 2018. Regardless, a team that ranked in the bottom five defensively with Suh the last two years could have trouble matching its 6-10 record from 2017. 

30. New York Jets

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The New York Jets will gain some credit if they use their first-round pick on Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield, but Josh Allen is too much of a project to make a positive impact in 2018.

    They also gave up three second-round selections (two in 2018, one in 2019) in order to move up three spots for a player they may have been able to land with their original pick. If they don't make any more moves in the draft and 90-year-old Josh McCown (38) does indeed start the season under center, Gang Green will have zero rookie first- or second-round picks on the field in the fall. 

    That's far from ideal for a team apparently rebuilding and that overachieved by winning a mere five games in 2017. 

    Getting high-potential wide receiver Quincy Enunwa back from a neck injury will help, and free-agent additions Trumaine Johnson and Avery Williamson could make more of an impact than departed veterans Muhammad Wilkerson and Demario Davis. But the Jets still lack too much depth on both sides of the ball and remain in search of a quarterback good enough to compensate. 

29. Cincinnati Bengals

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    A Cincinnati Bengals team coming off back-to-back losing seasons looks rather stale after another quiet March. 

    Sure, they upgraded at left tackle by trading for Cordy Glenn, but that acquisition—plus the addition of steady linebacker Preston Brown—isn't enough. The Bengals still lack game-changing players and are putting too much on the shoulders of quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive linemen Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. 

    Dalton has regressed, trouble-making linebacker Vontaze Burfict does more harm than good (and faces another suspension to start the season), the defense lacks teeth altogether (it ranked 30th with just 14 takeaways in 2017), and Glenn's presence won't fix a mediocre offensive line.

    The Bengals have a better chance at falling to the AFC North basement than slaying the Steelers or Ravens. 

28. Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    In 2017, the Seattle Seahawks were a nine-win team that ranked in the middle of the pack (14th) at Football Outsiders in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) and weren't hit particularly hard by injuries in what was an injury-filled season across the NFL. Remove Richard Sherman, Jimmy Graham, Sheldon Richardson, Paul Richardson and DeShawn Shead from that roster and what do you get? 

    Trouble, even with a magician at quarterback. 

    In addition to lacking talent along the offensive line, in the offensive backfield and in the receiving corps, the Seahawks now lack depth on both sides of the ball. Without Russell Wilson, they'd be a bad team. With Wilson, they're still probably kicking off a miniature rebuild. 

27. Indianapolis Colts

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Do we give Andrew Luck the benefit of the doubt? It's encouraging that the rehabbing quarterback is throwing footballs again, but we learned our lesson last offseason regarding his health updates. The Colts went 4-12 without Luck in 2017, and it's frankly easier to envision that happening again than it is to imagine the 28-year-old returning to Pro Bowl form in 2018. 

    Fact is, he hasn't been in that form since 2014, and he's missed 26 games since then. Even if he suits up Week 1, nobody knows how effective he will be. 

    The Colts can't be ranked in the bottom five so long as Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Anthony Castonzo are on the roster. But there still isn't enough talent on defense or along the offensive line, and they were oddly quiet in free agency. 

    Even with Luck active and effective, the Colts will have trouble keeping up with everybody else in the increasingly strong AFC South. 

26. Buffalo Bills

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    Rich Barnes/Associated Press

    Trading so-so offensive tackle Cordy Glenn to the Cincinnati Bengals was a coup for the Buffalo Bills, who are better off with 2017 second-round pick Dion Dawkins at left tackle and now hold the No. 12 selection in the draft. 

    If the Bills use that bolstered draft capital (which also includes the No. 22 pick) to obtain their next franchise quarterback, they could be better in 2018 than when they finally ended the longest playoff drought in football last season. But we can evaluate the Bills only for what they've done, and it's hard to feel too bullish about a team that features AJ McCarron in the top spot on the quarterback depth chart. 

    Despite finally getting back to the playoffs last season, the Bills ranked 21st in the NFL in DVOA—and that was with the departed Tyrod Taylor playing the most valuable role on the team, according to Pro Football Reference. Now Taylor, Preston Brown and E.J. Gaines are gone, and the Bills are overpaying Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy on the defensive side of the ball. 

    Barring a shockingly strong 2018 season from (fill in the blank) at quarterback, the Bills look like they'll win between six and nine games for the eighth consecutive year. Call it football purgatory. 

25. Arizona Cardinals

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Whether they'd like to admit it or not, the time has come for the Arizona Cardinals to rebuild. 

    That doesn't mean the Cards have to start from scratch without stars David Johnson, Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson, and it doesn't mean they have to commit to bad football for half a decade. Rebuilds can happen quickly in this league, but it does feel as though Arizona is in denial about its ability to contend. 

    Why else would you give Sam freakin' Bradford a $20 million deal? The 30-year-old has missed the majority of three of the last five seasons due to knee injuries, and Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer told NFL Network's Tom Pelissero in March that Bradford's knee condition is "degenerative."

    If Bradford can stay on the field, he might be an upgrade over Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton, but an aged roster got worse for the second consecutive offseason after losing Tyrann Mathieu, John Brown, Jaron Brown and Jared Veldheer. 

    Because they somehow went 8-8 last year, the Cardinals don't even have a premium draft pick (No. 15). The record could also have them believing they can make a playoff push with a healthy Johnson in the backfield. But that's unlikely because the defense and receiving corps have become too thin and Bradford doesn't stand much of a chance behind a subpar offensive line.

24. Baltimore Ravens

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    When center Ryan Jensen signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month, the Baltimore Ravens lost a solid offensive lineman in free agency for the third time in as many years. That'll take a toll on a team that still lacks weapons and support for veteran quarterback Joe Flacco. 

    Of course, Flacco has his own problems. The 33-year-old has posted a sub-85 passer rating in three consecutive seasons, and he averaged an NFL-low 5.7 yards per attempt in 2017. The Ravens offense produced fewer 20-yard plays (37) than anyone else in football, and March acquisitions Michael Crabtree and John Brown won't change that. 

    Baltimore keeps hanging around because a strong defense led by C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs remains one of the best in football, but Weddle (33) and Suggs (35) are getting pretty old. The Ravens are probably going to get worse before they get better. 

23. Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions approached free agency like a team that would be satisfied with a third consecutive 9-7 season in 2018. In with DeShawn Shead, out with D.J. Hayden. In with Devon Kennard, out with Tahir Whitehead. In with Luke Willson, out with Eric Ebron.

    Meh.

    In the Lions' defense, they didn't have much money to spend on the open market. They essentially put all of their eggs in Matthew Stafford's basket years ago, but they're too reliant on their hot-and-cold 30-year-old quarterback. 

    Stafford is coming off the best season of his career and could be even better in 2018, while a defense led by stars Ezekiel Ansah and Darius Slay has a high ceiling if youngsters Jarrad Davis and Teez Tabor can improve as sophomores. But the Lions still lack the weapons and depth required to keep up with Minnesota in the NFC North.  

22. Denver Broncos

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The quarterback position wasn't the only problem spot for the Denver Broncos in 2017, but it's one of the only spots they clearly upgraded. So even if you have high hopes for free-agent addition Case Keenum under center, there are reasons to be concerned about the Broncos. 

    Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and C.J. Anderson are good players, but Keenum doesn't have as much support as he did in Minnesota on either side of the ball. Left tackle Garett Bolles needs to improve after a shaky rookie season, and a defense that has been losing bite the last few years could miss Aqib Talib. 

    That D still has the ability to keep them in a lot of games, especially if stud pass-rusher Von Miller can bounce back from a bit of a down year. If Keenum's breakout 2017 campaign wasn't an anomaly, the offense will be better than average.

    It'll also help if the Broncos can add an immediate-impact player with the No. 5 overall pick, but those are a lot of ifs.

21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston's career has yet to take off, but the 2015 No. 1 overall pick saw most of his rate-based statistics improve in 2017, and he has a lot of support entering his fourth season. 

    Second-year pass-catchers O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin both have the ability to break out alongside veterans Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, and new center Ryan Jensen makes that offense better in two spots by enabling them to move Ali Marpet back to guard. 

    So the Bucs should score plenty of points in 2018, and an all-over-the-map defense should also be better with Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry and Beau Allen joining star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy up front. That unit underachieved while dealing with a lot of injuries last year, but there's almost no way they give up 378 yards per game again. 

    The Bucs will have to fight to get out of the basement in the tough NFC South, but they're much better than their 5-11 2017 record. And let's not forget they hold the No. 7 overall pick in this month's draft. 

20. New York Giants

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Free-agent additions Nate Solder and Patrick Omameh should make the oft-maligned New York Giants offensive line a heck of a lot better in 2017, which could enable the Giants to return to playoff contention with better injury luck in 2018. 

    Quarterback Eli Manning has his limitations at this point in his career, but Solder and a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. (assuming he isn't traded) will make Manning's life easier. Throw in talented young pass-catchers Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram, as well as a potential rookie game-changer like Saquon Barkley or Bradley Chubb, and there could be a lot of hype suddenly surrounding Big Blue in the fall. 

    On the other side of the ball, Landon Collins and Damon Harrison are studs, and Dalvin Tomlinson has a bright future, so there's hope for a defense that ranked 27th in points allowed last season. 

    It's important to keep in mind the Giants were a playoff team in 2016. Manning and Co. could fall on their face with or without Beckham in 2018, but there's also a chance the Giants bounce back. 

19. Carolina Panthers

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Seven, 12, seven, 15, six, 11. That's the number of games the Carolina Panthers have won in each of the last six seasons. The Cam Newton era has been a roller-coaster ride, partly because Newton himself has had an up-and-down career. That makes it hard to get a bead on the Panthers in March or April, but it did often feel as though they were lucky to be in contention in 2017. 

    Does that mean they're going to follow the pattern above and return to mediocrity in 2018? Carolina did a nice job replacing departed defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the cheaper-but-better Dontari Poe, but it also lost All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell.

    The Panthers brought ageless pass-rusher Julius Peppers back at a heavily discounted rate, but they also made a weird decision to trade still-promising young cornerback Daryl Worley for the washed-up Torrey Smith

    The point is the Panthers haven't done anything to indicate they're going to be able to keep up with New Orleans or Atlanta in the NFC South. Both the offense and defense are good, not great, and veteran linebacker Luke Kuechly is a huge question mark. 

    For the Panthers to get back into the Super Bowl picture in 2018, Newton might have to will them there.  

18. Washington Redskins

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Washington Redskins went 7-9 despite being torn apart by the injury bug in 2017.

    The season leader in adjusted games lost was without Trent Williams for six games, Spencer Long for nine, Chris Thompson for six, Shawn Lauvao for seven, Terrelle Pryor for seven, Josh Norman and Brandon Scherff for two each, and Zach Brown for three. 

    But they still ranked above the middle of the pack in DVOA. 

    They could miss Kirk Cousins and promising young cornerback Kendall Fuller, who was inexplicably included in their trade for Alex Smith. But let's not forget that Smith was the league's highest-rated passer last season.

    If the guys surrounding him can stay healthy, expensive new wide receiver Paul Richardson can live up to his contract in place of Pryor and the team can do something positive with its No. 13 overall pick, the Redskins could be in the playoff picture next season.

17. Chicago Bears

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    In adjusted games lost, only the Redskins were impacted more by injuries than the Chicago Bears in 2017. But the Bears still won a handful of games with a raw rookie quarterback and a lame-duck head coach. 

    A year later, there will be higher expectations for Mitchell Trubisky entering his sophomore season, and the 2017 No. 2 overall pick will have a lot more support. New head coach Matt Nagy worked magic with Alex Smith in Kansas City, and new receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton will team up with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen to become one of the best young arsenals in the league. 

    If returning wideouts Cameron Meredith and Kevin White can stay healthy, that receiving corps will be loaded for the relatively well-protected Trubisky, who completed more than 67 percent of his passes in the final month of his rookie campaign. 

    That same month, the Bears defense surrendered just 13.6 points per game to finish the season with a top-10 ranking in both points and yards allowed. Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller return to a talented secondary, positioning that unit for a strong 2018 campaign. 

    If Trubisky can continue to progress and third-year linebacker Leonard Floyd can put it together, the Bears could become a wild-card team in 2018. 

16. Oakland Raiders

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    If quarterback Derek Carr can bounce back in 2018, that six-win Oakland Raiders 2017 campaign will quickly be forgotten, but Carr needs more support on both sides of the ball. New head coach Jon Gruden and Co. didn't do enough in March to quell those concerns. 

    A toothless defense signed starting-caliber corner Rashaan Melvin but parted ways with Sean Smith, T.J. Carrie and Denico Autry, while an offense lacking weapons appeared to downgrade the No. 2 receiver spot by cutting Michael Crabtree and replacing him with the older, less productive Jordy Nelson.

    Aging running back Doug Martin isn't likely to save them on that side of the ball after the 29-year-old averaged just 2.9 yards per carry the last two years in Tampa. It's hard to see how a Raiders team that was relatively healthy last season will be a lot better in 2018. 

    That is unless Carr returns to MVP-caliber form, which is possible if he's healthier in his fifth season. 

15. Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans found a way to disappoint despite making the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade last season. That's because blossoming franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota frequently struggled in what was supposed to be a breakout campaign, and the young Titans failed to improve on their nine-win 2016 season. 

    Tennessee actually gave up 22 more points than it scored and ranked 18th in football in DVOA

    Still, the Titans entered another offseason flush with salary-cap space, and "New England South" clearly got better by adding big-play cornerback Malcolm Butler and flashy running back Dion Lewis in free agency. 

    Mariota is well-supported by a strong offensive line and a wicked running game, but he still lacks depth in the receiving corps; he might have to start the year without top-notch right tackle Jack Conklin; and despite talent in the secondary, the D lacks bite. 

    If that unit can't step it up and Mariota can't take off in 2018, the Titans will have trouble competing with Jacksonville and Houston in the increasingly tough AFC South.

14. Dallas Cowboys

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Considering the Dallas Cowboys didn't have their best player for six games during the second half of the 2017 regular season, their 9-7 record is pretty impressive. You'd think Dallas, which went 3-3 sans running back Ezekiel Elliott, would have been good for an extra win or two had Elliott not been suspended. 

    That alone is enough to keep Dallas ahead of the middle of the pack in these rankings, even though the cap-strapped front office wasn't able to do much in March after using a $17.1 million franchise tag on breakout star defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. 

    Dallas didn't suffer any major losses either, though, and there's no reason to think the Cowboys won't be back in the playoff picture with Elliott, quarterback Dak Prescott, Lawrence, a still-superb offensive line and an exciting young secondary (22-year-olds Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie and Xavier Woods all flashed in 2017). 

    It's tough to tell which direction Prescott's career is heading, and top receiver Dez Bryant's future is up in the air. That's why the Cowboys probably shouldn't be viewed as a top-10 team at this juncture, but there's a lot of room for them to either sink or swim in 2018.

13. San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers are all the rage this offseason, mainly because they finished 2017 with a bang. With new franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo leading the way, a San Francisco team that lost 24 of 26 games between September 18, 2016 and November 26, 2017 went 5-0 to finish the regular season. 

    The cap-rich 49ers then added Richard Sherman, Weston Richburg and Jerick McKinnon in free agency, and they'll have a chance to bring in more talent with a top-10 pick in the draft. 

    But there were clues that the Niners were better than their results prior to that late-season dash. When San Francisco started the 2017 campaign 0-6, five of those losses came by three points or fewer, and two came in overtime. They could have easily started 3-3 or even 4-2, which means they seriously could have been a 10-win team had Garoppolo been the starter from the get-go. 

    This team is even better than that one, and the Cardinals and Seahawks have both taken steps backward. Don't be surprised if Kyle Shanahan's squad makes a playoff run in 2018.

12. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs have more weapons on offense than the division rival Chargers, and they're to be feared coming off a 10-win season in which they averaged nearly 26 points per game.

    But veteran quarterback Alex Smith is gone, and while there's a lot of excitement surrounding his replacement, 2017 No. 10 overall selection Patrick Mahomes, we haven't seen enough of him to know whether he'll encounter growing pains during his first season as Kansas City's starter. 

    That's a wild card which for now hurts Kansas City's ranking, as is the team's decision to trade away veteran cornerback Marcus Peters. Replacement Kendall Fuller has a high ceiling, but Peters is an interception machine. A defense that ranked 28th in the NFL last season could miss him, even if star safety Eric Berry returns and excels after missing virtually the entire 2017 campaign due to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

    The Chiefs are a boom-or-bust team this year, which leaves them just outside the top 10 following a wild March. 

11. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The talented and well-balanced Los Angeles Chargers have underachieved in each of the last two seasons, but they might be due for a breakout year. 

    The Bolts ranked in the top 12 on both sides of the ball in terms of DVOA in 2017, and they had the top points differential total in the AFC West. That should have resulted in 10 or 11 wins, according to Football Outsiders' Pythagorean wins formula, but they settled for nine after an 0-4 start that included three losses that came by a combined seven points.

    Quarterback Philip Rivers gets the lion's share of the attention coming off another Pro Bowl season, but Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are only going to get better as an elite pass-rushing duo, the secondary is one of the best in football, the offensive backfield and receiving corps are jacked and an improving offensive line should be even better with second-year second-round pick Forrest Lamp healthy and veteran center Mike Pouncey joining the fray. 

    The Chargers didn't make any major splashes in free agency, but they hold the No. 17 overall selection, and top 2017 picks Lamp and wide receiver Mike Williams will basically be making their debuts after injury-derailed rookie campaigns. If they can have better luck with injuries (stud cornerback Jason Verrett has missed 27 games the last two years), they could be the best team in that division.

10. Green Bay Packers

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Aaron Rodgers

    Oh, you require more words? Look, if Rodgers is healthy the Green Bay Packers have a shot, period. He's the highest-rated qualified passer in NFL history by a wide margin, and his Packers were rolling along at 4-1 before Rodgers' 2017 season was derailed by a fractured collarbone in November. 

    The Packers had a lot of issues that Rodgers was concealing, especially on defense, but they should benefit from the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson on D and Jimmy Graham on offense.

    They still need help in the secondary, but the defensive front seven is strong and the offensive line is an asset when David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are healthy. 

    If Rodgers and his offensive tackles are on the field in 2018, Green Bay will be in the picture.

9. Houston Texans

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    According to Football Outsiders, only three teams were hit harder by injuries in 2017 than the Houston Texans. But those numbers don't do justice to what happened to Houston, which lost three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt in October and then saw sensational rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson go down with a season-ending knee injury in November. 

    Prior to Watson's injury, the Texans had scored 33 or more points in five consecutive games, with the 22-year-old Clemson product putting up a 113.3 passer rating during that span. He had a league-high 21 passing and rushing touchdowns at the time and was running away with the Offensive Player of the Year award. 

    Per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, Texans head coach Bill O'Brien is under the impression that Watson is ahead of schedule in his rehab. And with free-agent additions Senio Kelemete and Zach Fulton joining the interior offensive line, he'll be better supported when he does return. 

    Throw in Watt and offseason acquisition Tyrann Mathieu on defense, and the Texans look capable of doing big things in 2018. 

8. Atlanta Falcons

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Falcons weren't themselves in 2017 after blowing Super Bowl LI. And while that offense might never get back to where it was under Kyle Shanahan in 2016, the Falcons still have Matt Ryan under center, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu and Tevin Coleman surrounding Ryan and one of the best young defenses in the NFL. 

    Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal were dominant at all three levels for that unit in 2017, and all remain below the age of 25. That speedy, athletic D ranked in the top 10 in points and yards allowed in 2017, and it should be better even without departed veteran defensive tackle Dontari Poe.

    Look for the offense to bounce back at least a little bit in Steve Sarkisian's second season as offensive coordinator and for the Falcons to give the Rams, Vikings, Saints and Eagles a run for their money now that they've recovered from their Super Bowl hangover. 

7. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    So long as Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are healthy and wearing black and gold, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be a part of annual Super Bowl conversations.

    Bell is back for at least one more year on the franchise tag, Roethlisberger isn't walking away yet and Brown remains under contract through 2021, so a team that won 13 games last year should be back in contention.

    The Steelers were quiet as usual in free agency, but they could improve on both sides of the ball if top 2017 draft picks T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster continue to emerge. 

    Regardless, this is a team that has won 10 of 12 games, with the only two losses coming by a total of six points against fellow AFC heavyweights New England and Jacksonville. Look for those three to battle atop that conference in 2018.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars were one of only three teams (along with New England and Philadelphia) to score 400-plus points and allow fewer than 300 points in 2017, and the Jags D ranked first in the NFL in DVOA. Then they added one of the top players on the free-agent market in 26-year-old All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell. 

    Five of Jacksonville's six 2017 Pro Bowlers were below the age of 28, so there's little reason to believe one of the league's youngest and deepest teams won't be even better in 2018. But all of the teams surrounding them in the top 10 spots of these rankings are more secure at the quarterback position, because there are still legitimate questions regarding Jags starter Blake Bortles. 

    Blake Bortles, the 2014 No. 3 pick, salvaged his career with a half-decent 2017 season that included a pair of strong road playoff performances in Pittsburgh and New England. Still, he was the league's 13th-lowest-rated passer among 32 qualifiers

    If Bortles excels in his fifth season, the Jaguars can win it all. If he struggles, they'll likely linger as a talented second-tier contender. But they're so stacked that they'll be competitive either way. 

5. New England Patriots

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots have reached three of the last four Super Bowls, and with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at the helm they remain the top dogs in the AFC. But Brady will be 41 this summer, and the Pats took some hits in March.

    Going by Pro Football Reference's approximate value metric—which is "an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year"—two of New England's eight most valuable players from 2017 were lost when running back Dion Lewis and left tackle Nate Solder left as free agents.

    Starting corner Malcolm Butler and veteran receiver Danny Amendola are also gone, leaving the Patriots roster thinner than most of their upper-echelon counterparts. 

    Fortunately for New England, the AFC is the weaker of the two conferences. The Pats expect to get two-time 1,000-yard receiver Julian Edelman and Pro Bowl linebacker Dont'a Hightower back from injury, and you know they'll get something out of new arrivals Adrian Clayborn and Danny Shelton. 

    The Patriots always find a way. 

4. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles will have a target on their back in 2018, and they'll have to try to avoid a Super Bowl hangover with questions at quarterback. Franchise quarterback Carson Wentz is still recovering from a late-season ACL tear, and while backup Nick Foles helped Philly win Super Bowl LII, Foles has lacked consistency throughout his career. 

    Even if Foles does come through and Wentz does return in a timely fashion, the salary cap-strapped Eagles will be without veteran slot cornerback Patrick Robinson, who was a huge part of the team's Super Bowl run but departed for New Orleans in free agency. Defensive tackle Beau Allen, underrated pass-rusher Vinny Curry and tight end Trey Burton are also gone, and the NFC is top-heavy after the Rams, Vikings and Saints made big gains in March. 

    The defensively stout Eagles remain the team to beat, but each of the last 13 Super Bowl winners haven't repeated. Only 65 percent of the last 26 Super Bowl participants have made the playoffs the next season, and only two have gotten back to the Super Bowl.   

    The Eagles will have their work cut out for them.

3. New Orleans Saints

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints fell short of the NFC Championship Game last season, but New Orleans ranked tops in the league in DVOA.

    An already-lethal offense found a way to exceed expectations. Ageless quarterback Drew Brees led the NFC in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating, while Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara and fine wine Mark Ingram became the most destructive running back duo in the league. 

    But it was the defense that surprised everybody with a breakout campaign. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore intercepted five passes in only 13 dominant games to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, while defensive end Cameron Jordan had a career year with 13 sacks.

    With youngsters Lattimore, Marcus Williams, Ken Crawley and Sheldon Rankins teaming up with Jordan, a healthy Alex Okafor and top-notch free-agent additions Patrick Robinson and Demario Davis, that D should be even better in 2018. 

    The Saints might be the surest thing in football entering 2018. 

2. Minnesota Vikings

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings are gambling on new quarterback Kirk Cousins, but Cousins doesn't need to live up to his $28 million salary in 2018 for Minnesota to contend for a championship.

    The Vikings surrendered a league-low 15.8 points per game last season, and a defense that contains five 2017 Pro Bowlers should be even better with the addition of stud defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. 

    Both Cousins and Richardson are boom-or-bust signings. If they boom, Minnesota will be the team to beat in the NFC. If they bust, the Vikings will still be strong. 

    Minnesota made the NFC Championship Game in 2017 with Case Keenum at quarterback and without rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who tore his ACL after picking up 444 scrimmage yards in the first four games. Cousins is a more accomplished, more talented quarterback than Keenum, and Cook should be back and ready to pick up where he left off. 

1. Los Angeles Rams

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    Tim Ireland/Associated Press

    Only the two teams that met in Super Bowl LII had higher points differential totals than the Los Angeles Rams in 2017. As one of the league's youngest teams, they were destined to become a serious contender in 2018 without moving a muscle this offseason. 

    But the Rams haven't rested, adding Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh to a Wade Phillips-led defense that ranked fifth in the NFL with 28 takeaways. 

    Quarterback Jared Goff took a major leap in his sophomore season, and running back Todd Gurley earned Offensive Player of the Year honors with a league-high 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns. Both are just 23 years old, and with Suh teaming up with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, Goff and Gurley aren't even the most feared duo on the stacked Rams roster. 

    With the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals going through transitions and the San Francisco 49ers still rebuilding (albeit quickly), a Rams team that won 11 games last year should make a run at 13 or 14 wins in the NFC West.